In this third installment on writing web copy, we’re touching on some of the most important topics: the most common mistakes we see (often) that kill websites. Here’s what to look for (and what to avoid) to boost conversion rates and inspire readers to act.
Let’s get started.
1. Not realizing that the navigation and layout must come before design.
A website isn’t a brochure – you have to think in 3D!
This is a situation we see often at TWFH: A client comes to us and says “Here. I got this designer to design a website for me. Now I need to have some copy.”
You can get a functional website like this, but it’s not going to be an optimal website. Here’s why:
Websites are meant to convey content, not pretty pictures. Yes, the pretty pictures and the design are important, but only if they serve the purpose of conveying the content. So when you’re building a website, you always need to start with the content. There are three different website planning stages:
- Content planning: What pages you’re going to have on your website, and what information is going to be included on each page.
- Navigation planning: Will you have top or side navigation? How will each of the pages you planned interact with one another? Can some pages be linked to other pages? Will some pages be accessed from the navigation bar only?
- Page layout planning: Where will information go on the page? Should you have a sidebar? Single column copy or double column copy? Where will your charts and pictures go?
Unlike writing a brochure that you can read front to back, websites have information buried in them, and visitors have a lot more leeway to choose the own path. That’s why navigation and page design should be done with regard to content first. Mapping out all the pathways that your reader might choose ensures that:
- Pages link together in a logical way that the visitor will understand
- Important information can be easily found
- Future website growth will be easy to incorporate
So before anyone starts designing the website or writes any copy, we always suggest to go through this detailed planning stage. Account for WHAT information on your website is going WHERE. There are a lot of decisions to be made, very important decisions.
Content only works in conjunction with website layout – the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Spend some time planning where information should go, explore different design options, and once you have a good idea of where the elements of your website will be placed, THEN start writing and designing your website.
2. Including long introductions on the homepage.
A website isn’t a magazine article…
Most of us were taught in school to write a certain way: Start with your introduction, include supporting facts, then wrap it up. A lot of the print copy we see follows that same format, which is perhaps why lots of people want to take a journalistic approach to web writing – especially the long introductions that “set the scene.”
But web writing isn’t journalism. Long introductions aren’t necessary or relevant to your readers. Good copywriters call this “fluff.” But the most important reason you should nix those long intros is because they don’t SELL.
Professional web copywriting will concisely explain what your customer wants to know in the first two sentences. It will highlight your differentiators, and it will get straight to the point. No fluff, no beating around the bush.
Here’s an example of an especially terrible website intro for a used car website:
You need a car to get you to work. You need a car to take your kids to school, for trips to the grocery store, and for epic road trip adventures. You need a car to live your life – but you don’t need to pay top dollar for it. That’s why Two Brothers’ Used Cars specializes in certified pre-owned vehicles – guaranteed to save you money.
The problem with that example is that the introduction is long and meandering, and it doesn’t get to the point. The message is confusing: are you trying to convince your reader to buy a car, or convincing them to buy a car from you? (If they’re on your website, they already know they want to buy a car.) By the time readers skip down to the last sentence, they’re bored … or they might not have even made it to the last sentence. Instead, try a more direct approach, like:
Two Brothers’ Used Auto has 1000s of pre-owned vehicles at wholesale prices. Reliable. Affordable. And all used cars come with a year-long free maintenance package. Come take a test drive today.
More succinct, more precise, and clearer. I know what the company sells and specific company benefits and differentiators in a short amount of space. You’re not writing for the local daily, so resist the urge to “ease” your reader in to your copy. Jump in, be bold, and don’t waste time getting to the point.
3. Mistaking your homepage for your “About Us” page.
A website isn’t a business profile…
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited a website and, instead of getting information I wanted, like pricing or product details, I get something more like this:
Our company has been around for 25 years. We’ve since become the nation’s largest purveyor of widgets. Our operations now include 23 states, Mexico, and Canada.
I can tell that the owners must be savvy businessmen. But if I’m looking to buy a widget, that’s not what I want to spend my time reading. I need some CONTENT that’s directed at ME.
A better homepage intro for our widget company is going to tell me exactly what I need to know – something more along the lines of:
Our widgets save customers an average of 20% on their electric bill each month. We also offer free installation and free next day delivery, so you can start seeing your savings tomorrow. Shop our catalog of 24,000 widgets here.
Business profiles sell your company, but you need to get down to the business of selling your product or service. Readers don’t like when you talk about yourself, it boggles your homepage and confuses/bores the reader. Double check that your homepage is relevant and directed at the reader. Save your company credentials for another page and sell those widgets!
4. Not letting people read or see what they want.
A website isn’t a movie…
The great part about movies is that you get to sit back, relax, and drift off into an alternate reality for a few hours. You’re not thinking about bills or work or walking the dog. You’re engaged in a story.
Websites are different because people aren’t always relaxed when they’re on the Internet. They’re searching. They need something. And if they’re on your website, chances are they need something that you’re selling.
So rather than directing them, let your visitor control the experience. What are we getting at here exactly?
We’re talking about some of those more intrusive things you see on fancy websites: Flash. Loud music. Videos that pop out at me and send me searching for the STOP button.
Sure, there’s a time and a place for all of those things – don’t get us wrong, your flash and high-dollar videos are cool. But don’t make me sit through it. Don’t make people go through a splash page or a darn video if they don’t want to. Don’t make me jump out of my skin by blaring music at me … please.
Give them the option of skipping all the fancy stuff and getting to the meat of your website. Otherwise, you run the risk of boring (or annoying) your visitors. Let them call the shots!
5. Not blocking or chunking copy on the page.
A website isn’t a book…
Here’s what happens on a lot of webpages: You sit down to write your website. You start at the top of the page … and then you write all the way to the bottom.
Big no-no. I’m sure you’ve seen websites that have a solid chunk of copy head to toe. It’s a lot of info to take in, and it intimidates readers (I have to read ALL of this!).
You’ll remember from our post on online personalities that lots of online visitors don’t like to read. Lots of readers will clam up if they see too many words – they’re not there to read a novel. And people don’t read on the Internet the same way they read a book: their eyes flit around the page, searching for information quickly.
That’s why you need to block your copy – to point out the most important stuff to your readers and make sure they don’t get overwhelmed.
Breaking up copy can be done in a number of ways, many of which we’ve already talked about in our previous post. As a refresher:
- Use bulletpoints to highlight important information
- Use bolded headers
- Use paragraphs
- Use bolded words where appropriate
- Use pictures and charts
- Use tables, squares, call outs, and sidebars
- ALWAYS include lots of whitespace in your design
- Use links to point people to more detailed information
- Split up longer articles or pieces with “read more” or “learn more” links.
If your reader is inundated by too many words, you’re going to lose them and you’re also going to lose a sale. Break it up!
Have any questions about our 5 most common web mistakes? Leave a comment and let us know! And check back for next week’s last and final post in this series, the 5 Copywriting Rules That Don’t Change … Even on the Web.
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